I’m the Only Mom My Kids Have. Sorry, Kids.

People say that I must be an amazing mother. Really, they say it. I don’t know what gives them that impression. I probably talk a good talk. But there is one thing these sweet people have in common- they don’t see my mothering. If they did, they’d declare my children amazing for thriving in my haphazard parenting.

The grand goal of parenting is to raise functional adults, like the goal of war is to win. Of the smaller goals, the ones that make the grand one possible, I don’t have a clue. I am mostly reactionary- reacting to the freshest spilled milk, the bloodiest injury, the worst behavior, the newest and most ridiculous school drama. I just do… something.

Coptic_-_Funerary_Stele_with_Family_Portrait_-_Walters_263Sometimes, I do something great. I come up with just the right bit of pithy wisdom that wraps a problem up in a neat bow. Most of the time, I hastily and inexpertly handle an issue and put it down to go on to the next one, thinking to myself, “Please work.”  It works or it fails.

When I started on this career as a stay-at-home parent and home executive, I thought it beneath me. It was a sacrifice I would make for the good of my children, but really, I was capable of so much more. I was bored. None of my friends appreciated or honored this career choice. They were all in the exciting jostle of climbing those first rungs on career ladders, and I walked away when I got knocked up.

To be fair, in the beginning, I was bored. I was used to spending my days with other musicians, playing, practicing, going out after gigs.  I enjoyed sparring with a firecracker of a nun for whom I worked. I had a closet full of flattering orchestra black and shoes to match.

569px-Maarten_van_Heemskerck_-_Family_Portrait_-_WGA11298As a new mother, I spent my days alone in the house with a baby who slept a lot and nursed often.  My daily grooming goal was to put on a shirt without puke on it before Hot Swede got home. It felt hard at the time, and it was because I was a rookie. Nature has to ease parents into the fray with gradually intensive training or either three year-olds or we wouldn’t survive.

9 years later, with 3 increasingly sophisticated children, this job is above me. I feel like I am at the limit of my capabilities, patience, and wisdom. I am scraping the bottom of my bag of tricks. If I am honest with the past, this is how I felt as soon as child #1 began to move around and talk. Each phase overwhelms me with the newness of its challenges. I panic and wonder if my kids will grow up okay in spite of me, and before I know it, that battle is over and a new one approaches.

It’s an awful feeling to constantly judge myself as ineffective at doing the most important vital thing there is to do. There is no way out. I don’t get to quit. I know I am not the only parent to think to herself, “You know; this just isn’t working out for me. I don’t think I’m right for this position.” I comfort myself with the thought that if I didn’t think it was hard, I probably wouldn’t be paying close enough attention.

Maybe, or maybe I’m a control freak who needs to manage and mold every aspect of my childrens’ lives. Maybe I manufacture self-importance 640px-Family_In_Lanchow,_China_1944_Fr._Mark_Tennien_Restoredby thinking I’m more critical than I am. They will require therapy regardless; maybe I should just relax.

But I can’t. Every time I look ahead to their adulthoods, I see things in them that need to be guided now. Tomorrow will bring new challenges. I see pieces of their temperaments that they will need to learn to manage in order to not be ruled by them. It is already time to teach the 9 year-old about what comes next for a pre-teen girl. I haven’t begun to plan for that. There are social quagmires at school to wade through. There are issues around technology and entertainment that need to be sorted. (Other 3rd grade parents, can you please stop buying your kids their own tablets, please? Thank you.) There is the constant pull of a pushing a kid to take on one responsibility and deciding they aren’t ready for another.

This job is hard. If you care about doing a decent job, if you are honest about the nature of the world children will inherit and have to live in, it is hard. It will take all the strength, self-control, and talents you have and it will not be enough. It will require you to do things you are not good at, ask you to learn skills you’ll never master, ask you to behave selflessly, ask you to be a better person than you want to be. I suspect that one of the reasons parents cry at recitals, plays, the pre-prom pictures, even weddings, is because they look at their child and in that moment, they think, “This worked! Something worked! I didn’t screw it all up!”

5115210712_fe85e38fb8But it is worth it; I will say that. Despite the difficulties and the way it forces parents to grow up and be better, it is worth doing. It is the most important job in human society- the raising of a thoughtful, wise, productive next generation. Is it fun? Once in awhile. Do children make you happy? No. No they do not. But depending on others to make you happy never works for very long. Raise them anyway. Parenting connects you to the continuum of humanity in a visceral way. Raise a child and gain a deeper understanding of all those who came before you, and thank your own parents. Are children awesome? Yes, just like you and I. Are they are hard to live with, messy, and imperfect? Yes, just like you and I.

I am not an amazing mother. As far as I’m concerned, the jury’s out on that until the youngest is paying taxes and building healthy relationships of her own. And that assumes that she makes her own excellent choices. I am just a mom, like millions before me- trying my best, praying for wisdom and for other good people in my children’s lives, making mistakes, saying I’m sorry, trying again.

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Tulips

P1030016I bought $5 tulips last week as an act of self-love. They are my favorite: Sculptural, sophisticated, intense, bold. I love watching them change over the course of a week. Roses hang their heads and shrivel. Daisies brown from the heart.  Alstroemeria deny mortality, looking the same for two weeks before I walk past them quickly and they drop every single last petal en masse. Irises don’t even try.

P1030012Tulips make art of dying, or living, depending on how you look at it. They change each day: opening and closing with heat and light. Stems and flowers continue to grow, starting out vertical with uniform tight buds and ending in a wild splay of graceful arcing stems, each flower with more personality than it had when it was younger. Petals keep their color and sheen while growing translucent and crepey. They curl and wrinkle. Their veins show. They stop closing at night and open further. And yet, I can’t throw them away because they are immensely beautiful near the end, most beautiful. They don’t hit the compost until they’ve dropped nearly all of their petals. At which point, someone in my family raises and eyebrow, points, and says, “Really?”

I hope to age like a tulip, to continue to grow, to retain some of my younger boldness as I grow translucent and crepey, to be found beautiful in the long arc of a life, to be interesting to those who take a moment to see me, and worth keeping around awhile longer, before I hit the compost.

Day 9, still lovely.

Day 9, still lovely.

Pharmaceutical Grade Solitude

The Value of a Good Time Out

December was a nightmare. It always is. Thus, the complete lack of postings here. We have been musicians our whole adult lives and December is busy season for anyone who sings or plays with any kind of skill. I only took one playing gig. Hot Swede more than made up for it with his (slightly insane) choir schedule and ad hoc gigs at church. I stupidly

8203770426_e3a7382ed5_nvolunteered to do the costumes for our church’s live Nativity. (It is so easy to say yes in October.) I had to make 6 adult angel costumes, in addition to finishing the gifts I was making for my own giving. I attended the children’s “winter concerts,” (If we‘re not going to do a Christmas concert, I humbly ask the public schools to save their “winter concerts” for January. Please.) did the daily everything, and solo parented while Hot Swede was singing all evening. I have never wanted Christmas to be over so badly. The weekend before the big day, Hot Swede got home from singing out of state (!), and I crumbled into about 289 pieces. I was completely used up, empty. I had a lot of work left to do and people to be kind to and I had no idea how I was going to manage it.  I needed to restock and repack my mental toolbox. I needed serious alone time.

I use pharmaceutical grade solitude, 100%pure, to calm my nerves and smooth my feathers. This isn’t a break from the people driving me nuts. It isn’t watching a movie by myself, or even going to the bathroom without someone knocking at the door and asking for something (although that would be nice.) Therapeutic solitude is free of other human input- no books, music, talk, art, conversation, people watching. It is a time to just be with myself, reconnect with who I am, find my balance and ground.  Lucky for me, I learned the value of purposeful solitude early.

In 10th grade, the experiential education department at my school sent a handful of us on a solo trip. We hiked into the mountains where we were given our boundaries and rules:

3400140191_9b165fe386_nNo contact, even visual, with other soloists, no fires, books, writing, no yelling except in case of bears. Our leader handed each of us a tarp, length of rope, and a Ziploc with the following: 2 hard candies, 2 oz of cheese, 2 granola bars, and a tortilla.  We treated our creek filled water bottles with iodine and each of us set out to find a secluded campsite where we would spend at least the next 24 hours completely alone.

Beforehand, I was curious as to how I would react to the experience. Would it be uncomfortable? Would I like being so alone? Would I spend it talking to myself or to God? It turned out that, as I couldn’t go anywhere, I had no other purpose except to be, and that’s what I did. I listened to the air, studied all the mosses and lichens in my little camp. It was so different from anything else I’d ever experienced. I took naps in patches of sunlight, delighted in the sun-warmed rock.  I was asleep when the sun went down and rose when it did.

The experience didn’t change my life. There was no mountain top experience, just an opportunity to commune with the quiet inner voice that can be heard only when the loud outer voices, the ones that communicate with others, are not coming in or going out. I kept company with myself, listening and observing, and realized that I liked this girl and wanted to be kind to this person who is me. If that isn’t an important realization for a 16 year-old girl to come to, I don’t know what is.

Some people use solitude for prayer and meditation, and that has its own value, but there is something sweet and nutritive about listening to my own soul and body. It’s self-5712953278_9986cfe40e_ndating and therapy all in one- getting to know myself, listening, watching, not trying to change or solve problems- just understanding. It’s a chance to let mental knots loosen and unravel, a chance to stop reacting to outside demands, a chance to sort and restock the mental stores.

20 years later, my daily life is never free of other humans, and I take solitude very seriously, if infrequently.  The weekend before Christmas, with about 24 things on my to-do list, my husband, whom I had essentially not seen in two weeks, kicked me out of the house for some alone time. He is sweet and knew I needed it. He is also not an idiot; He knew his life would be better if I got some solitude.

Hear no people. See no people. Speak to no people.

Hear no people. See no people. Speak to no people.

I ate breakfast that someone else cooked. I drove in silence. I’m a gal who likes to have music or talk on at all times, but not during therapeutic solitude. I ran one nightmare errand to the mall (barf) and got out of there as quickly as possible. Then, the best part- I went to the art institute because it’s beautiful and quiet and sat on the same bench for 1.5 hours. What piece of art took my attention for 1.5 hours? None. Art was too much of other humans. I sat looking out over a deserted snow-covered park, just breathing, just being. Stress sloughed off in big flakes and by the end, I was ready to go back to my life, picking up the gallon of milk that I knew we needed on the way home.

I am fortunate to have a healthy, inexpensive tool for renewal, and family who supports it. Massages are nice. Pedicures and manicures don’t appeal to me. Shopping is short-lived. Drinking, movies, and other escapes have their place, but they don’t make coming back to reality any easier. Medicinal grade solitude is it. It is what works for this woman who is never ever alone unless someone else helps make it happen.

Christmas Eve prep was done at 3 am; I was fine. Christmas day was fine; I even enjoyed it. My in-laws got everyone ice skates and we made good memories and better bruises. The day after was lovely. New Year’s Eve, hanging out with friends while our children watched a movie and fell asleep, was the top social event of the month.  And that day apart, given to me by Hot Swede, was the second best gift of the season.

I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends.

I had a terrible morning with the children. The youngest is sick and cried. The eldest threw a full bore tantrum. The middle child, typically, said not a word and got ready for school. After dropping the older two at school, I came home and cried into a dishtowel for ten minutes. I was at a loss; I didn’t know how I should have handled the tantrum.  I was sure I was a terrible mother; no one knows how bad it really gets around here except me. My nerves were shot; a tornado of chaos and banshees knocked me over, and I had no idea why or what to do about it.

3609775194_df351a29b9Out of frustration and a touch of desperation, I posted something about the bad morning and feeling inept. I wasn’t fishing for compliments or platitudes; it was just something I had to say somewhere.  Within minutes, my phone rang. It was my friends, a couple I’ve known for years, asking if I was okay and what was going on. The concern expressed in their words and the act of calling comforted me greatly. They gave me a couple things to try. Mostly, they listened and confirmed that parenting is hard. It is hard for everyone, but lots of other people get through it and so will I, and so will they.

I had forgotten what a powerful support it is to have someone show concern and listen, especially someone who is walking a similar path. When I was a newish parent, I was lucky to be part of a wonderful program through our public school system, ECFE. It is a program designed to support and help families navigate the baffling early years of parenting.

We met once a week for one hour with children, and then one without- the kids exploring their world, the parents exploring theirs. This group of wonderful, average, every day women saved my bacon. We saved each other’s bacon. Each week, we’d share our joys and bring our concerns to the group in uncommonly open, kind, and honest conversation. Everything was game: kids who wouldn’t stay in bed, kids who’d only eat cheese, disagreements with partners, divorce, illness, infidelity, our own weakness and frustrations. It may be the healthiest thing I did for myself and my young family.

We all need those places to unload, commiserate, re-direct, tell the truth, hear the truth, and offer support. This job is completely bananas. Almost any yahoo can make a baby and that’s where the easy part ends. Billions of people have raised children under all kinds of conditions, difficulties, and advantages. It is hard every time. If parents care about their children at all, it is hard. It’s the most intense challenge I will ever face.

I want to be the mother each of my children needs, but there are three of them, one of me, and I have my own soul trying to be the person she needs to be. Dealing with myself is hard enough, much less trying to be good for three children. Children come with their personalities, temperaments, weaknesses, and strengths intact and active. Grown humans must teach them how to make the most of what they’ve got. My children’s proclivities, talents, and issues may be widely disparate from my own, but it is still my job and I don’t get a pass because I feel ill suited to it. At some point, we all fall short of expectation, but we don’t get to quit.  Decent parenting (I’m not talking stellar, just decent) is utterly vital to the health of society and individuals.  So we pick ourselves up, open up a bottle of wine when the kids go to bed, and do the best we can.

A compatriots make difficulties easier to bear.

Compatriots make difficulties easier to bear.

Except sometimes, we can’t pick ourselves up quickly. Quickly is important, because the battle doesn’t stop because we’ve fallen down. Today I was overwhelmed. I no longer have that group of pre-school moms to lean on, strategize with, and encourage. My friends picked up the phone and were the support that I needed. I am so grateful. They may not even realize what it meant to me to have them reach out and pull me up. They patched me up and sent me back into the fray, reminded that I was not alone and that any parent worth her salt feels inadequate at times.

Let's go for coffee, I mean, cheap therapy.

Let’s go for coffee, I mean, cheap therapy.

I will look for places to do the same for others, when they hit a rough spot. It increases goodness and we all need help eventually. Ask for help when you need it, and be there when others need you. Both sides of the equation make this hard and vital job of raising people easier, kinder, and less harrowing. Be kind to each other. Kids, be kind to your old moms and dads. We’re actually working hard at this, even if it doesn’t look like it.

Mother’s Amnesia

How Second Children and Golden Nostalgia are Made

When you are pregnant with your first child, women of a grandmotherly age tell you to treasure each moment because it is the best time of your life. I have always been dubious of this gushy advice. Even before birthing my first, I took it with a chunk of salt. It couldn’t be true when every mother of young kids I saw looked tired, harried and in need of a nap. Now I understand. Nature programs selective amnesia into the minds of mothers. If she did not, she would find it difficult to convince any of us to have more than one child. But as soon as you deliver that grapefruit sized head from your body, you start to forget the sensation. It’s chemical fact.

Doux rêves- Firmin BaseYes, mothering is the most important thing I do. Yes, it has its moments of joy- hearing my daughter’s belly laugh, watching an older brother help a younger one without prompting.  I will be honest; those moments are precious and infrequent. They happen without warning, and I have to be ready to catch them. Often, they happen and I miss them because I’m busy burning dinner or digging in the mismatch bin for two socks that are in the same color family.

I don’t love the job, but I love my children and I am able and willing to take a stay-at-home position in service to their personhood and an immense sense of responsibility I feel for giving them the best tools I can and a sturdy foundation to build on.

There are stay at home parents who adore the job. (I don’t know who they are, but I’m sure they exist.) On a day-to-day basis, it is mostly laundry, meals, and interruptions, and I never leave the office. When all three children were at home, I operated in stupefying chaos and nothing I cared about was under my control. I didn’t go to the bathroom on my own terms.  It’s getting better as they get older, but it is still a mess. I plan a nice dinner and someone drops/breaks/gets stuck in something and dinner goes unmade. A preschooler dumps a cup of milk into a basket of folded laundry. Order crumbles into disarray, like graham crackers in a car seat.

Sisyphus, artist unknownAll my tasks, except the long game of raising adults, are cyclical and eternal in nature: completing their tight little circle in a day and demanding to be done once again. Sisyphus didn’t have it so bad. He rolled that stone in peace and quiet and, as far as I know, no one vomited down the front of his tunic.

While this is all true, it is also true that the work is immensely significant and challenging. If I bring new humans into the world, I owe it to them and the world to do whatever I can to help them become a blessing and not a burden to the world. Doing so requires being honest with who they are  and I am.

Nothing cuts down your ego like parenting. Your children will embarrass you in Target. “Mom, that woman [pointing, of course] is so big! Do you think she’s a Bigfoot?” I bent down and said, “Oh, little girl, where is your mother? Let’s go find her.” and led the blabbermouth away as quickly as possible. Good times.

All pretense is stripped away as you rock a fussy baby at 2:00 am, or sit in a steamy bathroom at 4:30, trying to help your sick 5 year-old breathe. There are no breaks and the façade you keep up for others and yourself falls to pieces under the strain, leaving you facing your true self- all the good and ugly bits.

You make goals for your kids. You want them to eat kale, read Chinese, love baseball, be healthy and kind, but you have very little control over any of it. You are dealing with an autonomous being, and their free will and luck do a lot of thwarting your best intentions.

At the very least, parenting opens your eyes to what your parents did for you. You become aware of sacrifices to which you were blind. You forgive their faults because you realize that you have some of the same ones. Your parents taste a sweet little justice, sending sugared up kids home from their house, or watching you struggle with a mouthy teen. Grandparents should enjoy it; they earned it.

It is hard, long, and difficult. And darn it, if those old biddies weren’t right. The days drag, but the years fly. Before I know it, I will be teaching them to drive, and moving them into apartments. I will be wistful and weepy because Nature will have done her merciful kindness and I will carry the golden moments in my heart, the others, still there, but faded in the background.

"The Three Ages of Woman", detail, Klimt.

Perhaps I’ll remember myself as a very pale white woman.

Six Year-Olds, 29 Years Later

3721935942_6b97d286aa

I went for a walk with a soul I met in kindergarten, my first friend who was not also my cousin. My mom joked that we became close because we were the only two minority, less than upper-class students in the class. I can’t corroborate that because the only division I noticed at the time was that we were all brown from a high desert summer except Catherine, who glowed with an ivory pallor and crown of blond plaits that I found mesmerizing. I had never seen someone that fair.

Keeping touch with childhood friends makes me think like an old woman- seeing the full length of my life, feeling the stretch of years as one event. Our shared experiences took place when we were shorter and had smoother cheeks, but it hardly matters. We are shaped by the sum of our experiences, not just the recent additions.

il_fullxfull.132528183Friends from youth are as much a part of my life as those who currently inhabit it. No matter where we are in life, our interactions with people follow a pattern. We come into each other’s lives, walk along side for a time, and then continue on our individual paths.

After kindergarten, my friend and I went separate ways until 6th grade, when we were once again at school together and our paths ran parallel until high school graduation. We now live on opposite ends of the country, but are digitally reconnected. While separated geographically and politically, she is a woman who’s decency and solid mind I admire greatly.

I can only think of one person I wish I had never met, whose interactions were onerous and pedagogically fallow. The upper classman concertmaster who dressed down 11 year-old me in front of the rest of our combined 6-12th grade violin section- I could have done without that arrogant ass. The only thing I learned from him was that some people are just jerks and that grudges can be carried easily for decades. Even the violist in my most dysfunctional chamber ensemble ever was diverting enough to make for good stories. (He threw a telephone receiver in a fit of anger- the big clunky kind that used to be attached to walls- over a spat about tuning his 3rd.)

I appreciate people who come into my life. I admire them for what they’ve accomplished, or skills they’ve mastered that I have not. I esteem their strengths, especially when I am aware of some of their weaknesses. If people approach me honestly, I will respond in kind.

20121217-163827I cannot imagine being any other way. It would be exhausting to try to impress people, or to put up facades and keep distance. I’m too lazy for that. Here I am, a 6 year-old, a 16 year-old, a nearly 36 year old- adding years and people one by one, filling my memory with the richness of walking with my 6 year-old friend, 29 years later, toting her son, unpacking our families, careers, and ideas. For all the distance of space and years, knowing her is part of my whole.

Maybe my nostalgia is syrupy. Maybe it’s easy to feel like people are wonderful as I sit here, alone, in my house. Maybe I get caught in waves of emotion. Eh, so what? There are worse things than liking people easily.

The illustrations are all by Joan Walsh Anglund, a favorite from my childhood. Her website is here.

Housewife Proud

Today, for the first time ever, I felt a bit of pride about being a homemaker. It was fleeting, a wisp of a thought as I drove my garden fork into the second compost bin, breaking apart a mat of moldy grass clippings, but it was definitely there- pride. I am gobsmacked. I have purpose and pride in the work I do in parenting, but not housekeeping. I view housekeeping as a burden I bear because I am also a stay at home parent, and it makes sense that the stay-at-home partner does most of the work at home.

However creative and satisfying Martha Stewart makes it look, let’s remember that she has piles neat towers of cash tied with grosgrain ribbon and a small army of minions to do all the mundane and persnickety tasks. The reality is that the bulk of housekeeping tasks are mundane and persnickety. My “to do” lists are full of piddly affairs that no one really notices until they haven’t been done for a long time and have gotten out of hand: mopping, weeding, keeping a stock of toilet paper, pairing separated socks, changing sheets at least once a season.  Everything about housekeeping is cyclical and most of those cycles are daily or weekly. My people demand to be fed every single day! It is relentless and never ending. Until today, I have always detested and accepted it at the same time.

Washing dishes while wearing a party hat- variety really is the spice of life.

Washing dishes while wearing a party hat- variety really is the spice of life.

What happened? Did I lose my mind for just a moment, inhaling the grass mold? No, not entirely. It has more to do with the three-week hiatus I took from this house. I am fresh and the drudgery is not yet repetitive enough to cause psychic blisters. With my face in the compost, I accepted the value of what I do.

Yeah, yeah, I know that homemakers save money by doing tasks that would otherwise be hired out, but I didn’t own that fact. I didn’t accept it as a good enough trade off for not clamoring after a career. But here’s what makes it okay: The stuff I do improves the quality of life for myself and those I love.

I feed us well, with the healthiest stuff I can afford and prepare, because I think what we eat matters. I grow food. I shop sales and plan meals around them. I go to one of four different stores, depending on what I need and who has the best quality for the price. I hold prices per ounce in my head. Those I can’t keep in my head are in my phone. Really. I spend a lot of time procuring, preparing, and cleaning up our food. I couldn’t do it if I worked full time, or even half time. It wouldn’t be worth the time cost. We would eat less healthfully and spend more money doing it.

I take care of life maintenance tasks that would be chronically forgotten if Hot Swede were in charge. He is gifted at many things, but managing the chaotic minutia of a family is not one of them. I am not a stellar actor in this theatre either, but I’m better. Our family works more smoothly if bills get paid on time, events are entered on the calendar, and underwear gets washed regularly, even if it doesn’t get put away.

I practice the stinking piano with two children, a task that takes more self-discipline on my part than anything else I do.  But it makes music lessons worth the cost; they are not cheap and are wasted on most children if parents aren’t involved. If I worked at a job, there is no way I could come home and bring myself to cajole, threaten, criticize and encourage reluctant children to curve their fingers and play it with the metronome eight more times.

I make Halloween costumes when I can’t find them for purchase, despite late night Internet searches. I stay home with sick children and am here on snow days. Hot Swede doesn’t face last minute childcare crises and juggling of client appointments. My being at home lets him be more dependable and steady at his job. I go to all the little performances and presentations at school, even the really lame ones.

I do bundles of time intensive tasks that I would punt if I were working for someone else. The wonderful thing about my job is that I still have freedom to punt the stuff that I don’t deem worthy. I re-prioritize at will. Not many careered people can say that. I don’t iron my clothes because wrinkles don’t bother me. I don’t edge the lawn, decorate cupcakes, or stencil cute things on my children’s walls. Why? Because I don’t want to and no one can make me. I’m co-president of this organization. I work for the people I love most in the world- for their health, their peace, their quality of life, and their future.

"Wow, Mom, no one will ever know that you got those at Costco!"

“Wow, Mom, no one will ever know that you got those at Costco!”

So there it is- the first time in 8 years I’m proud to be a homemaker. Next week, I’ll re-read this as I fold the 6th load of laundry and I’ll deride myself for posting such a load of buoyant crap. But today, two feet deep in rotting garbage, I was happy to be there.